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Adaptation in the Paris climate agreement: a matter of principle

Monday, 4 January 2016 15:00 GMT

A farm worker looks for dried plants to remove in a paddy field on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, India, amid a drought, Sept 8, 2015. REUTERS/Amit Dave

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Wider use of global guidelines on adaptation would help vulnerable people cope better with climate change

The Paris Agreement hopefully kicks off a new era of significantly scaled-up climate action. That must include dealing more comprehensively with climate change impacts to safeguard development and eradicate poverty.

The signs are promising. Fostering climate resilience has been included in the central purpose statement of the agreement. Future adaptation action now finds its directional “north star” in a global adaptation goal, and all countries have promised to undertake national adaptation planning activities.

The new deal reached in Paris last month also sends a signal about what good adaptation practice is about, by including - and thereby strengthening - key adaptation principles.

With scarce resources available, it is even more important adaptation is done with the needs of the most marginalised and climate-vulnerable people, communities and ecosystems as a starting point.

The agreed principles provide a benchmark for achieving this. There is much evidence that the principles - including strong participation, transparency of action, and the use of local, traditional and indigenous knowledge - are essential to making adaptation more sustainable through understanding local contexts.

When people grasp how social inequalities, such as unequal access to resources or unfair distribution of labour between women and men, hinder adaptation, they can begin to challenge those barriers. They can then become more collaborative and inclusive in their decision-making, leading to better adaptation action.

Gender-responsive adaptation, another of the principles, requires critical evaluation of the fairness and value of gender roles and norms in climate action, and then renegotiation of them, as identified in CARE’s 2014 report “Double Injustice”.

For example, a project in Niger helped increase the representation of women on local land committees from 10 percent to 20 percent, with the committees now advising on the advantages of gender-balanced control over land. Those advantages include greater abilities to cope with droughts made longer and more frequent by climate change.


The Paris Agreement does not start from scratch on these principles, which were already included in the Cancun Adaptation Framework adopted in 2010 at the U.N. climate talks.

However, we find they have yet to receive the attention they deserve as guidance for good practice, and have only been used half-heartedly on the ground.

U.N. decisions guiding National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) have all referred to these principles, but technical guidelines for preparing the plans lack a systematic approach for giving the principles full consideration.

Practical guidelines for governments to strengthen consideration of issues surrounding gender and vulnerable communities are badly delayed.

Two expert meetings on the themes of gender and indigenous people in early 2014 brought up a range of practical examples, showing how the principles can lead to real people-centered adaptation on the ground.

But subsequent recommendations to better incorporate traditional knowledge into adaptation projects, adopted at the U.N. climate summit in Lima in 2014, do not seem to have triggered much reaction from governments or other funders of climate change projects.

International climate funds are major direct support channels for the multilateral regime to help adaptation in developing countries. Yet in all these funds, a coherent application of adaptation principles has been absent so far.

No climate fund has referenced the Cancun Adaptation Framework, nor has a fund developed a comprehensive approach to the entire set of principles.

There are, however, some entry points for strengthening practice. The Adaptation Fund, set up under the U.N. climate talks, prioritises vulnerable communities in its foundation documents, which contain concrete provisions on project guidance and safeguards.

Meanwhile, the Green Climate Fund, another product of the U.N. climate process, has a gender policy and endeavours to employ participatory monitoring frameworks.

Most recently, in guidance agreed at December's Paris summit, governments have asked the fund's board to take into account the set of adaptation principles, and the Cancun Adaptation Framework as a whole.

In bilateral aid, a key channel for adaptation finance, we found a patchy picture.

We looked at various funding templates, strategies and plans from contributing countries, including such Denmark, France, Germany, Sweden, UK and the United States.

The Cancun Adaptation Framework is largely invisible in these, and there is almost no explicit reference to adaptation principles with the exception of gender equality, which has received increased attention in international cooperation in general.


We believe this piecemeal approach is a missed opportunity, as applying common norms for good adaptation can have benefits for everyone, in particular those most in need of support.

However, the different ways in which some institutions have given prominence to at least some of the principles open up spaces for exchange and learning. This must include support for recipient countries to consistently apply the principles for their own benefit.

The Paris Agreement could serve as a springboard from which to advance these principles internationally and nationally.

Technical bodies and funding institutions should grasp opportunities to proactively advance the agenda, by developing specific but flexible recommendations on each principle for example.

The Adaptation Committee of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change could also develop a toolbox for different actors to apply the adaptation principles.

With a strong adaptation package and significantly scaled-up financial support, action based on strong adaptation principles could give vulnerable communities new hope they will not be left alone to deal with climate change impacts.

Sven Harmeling is climate change advocacy coordinator with CARE International, and Soenke Kreft is team leader for international climate policy with Germanwatch.